- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Linda Smith is trying to bring hope to what may seem like a hopeless situation. In 1998, she founded Shared Hope International, a nonprofit organization that aims to rescue and restore women and children who are in crisis, because of the global sex-trafficking market.

The former Republican representative from Washington’s 3rd Congressional District is trying to stop sex trafficking by working with law-enforcement officials, government authorities and service organizations. Her offices are located in Arlington and in Vancouver, Wash.

“You say, ‘Slavery, I thought that was an old thing around the world’” Mrs. Smith said. “No it isn’t. They call it debt bondage, debt servitude, child labor, child prostitution. If you exploit a child and sell them to someone else or sell their labor to someone else, that’s an international trafficking victim, even if they are sold within their own country.”

Mrs. Smith is a 21st-century abolitionist, said Ambassador John R. Miller, director of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons.

“Modern-day slavery exists in every country of the world, including the United States of America,” Mr. Miller said. “Every country can do more. I think you have to look at throwing the traffickers in jail and helping the victims. There has been a tremendous increase in prosecution since the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which was strengthened in 2003 and 2005.”

In the late 1990s, when a Christian missionary from India first told Mrs. Smith about girls as young as 6 being devalued, she thought it was an overstatement.

“I recall thinking it sounded like exaggeration. How could there be that many tens of thousands of women, girls and sometimes boys, in literally cagelike conditions, and the world was not having an uproar?” Mrs. Smith said. “Finally, I got on a plane and went to India, and sure enough, there were children younger than my granddaughter, who was 11 at that point, in cagelike conditions, little stalls. Some of them had bars so you couldn’t get out.”

Although the caste system has been abolished in India, it is still difficult to get justice, even though buying and selling a person is against the law, Mrs. Smith said.

“The social reality is that children work off the ‘family debt’ all over the world,” Mrs. Smith said. “Technically, they’re not supposed to be, but the law is created by practice. Even though it’s illegal, it’s being tolerated, so the law means nothing compared to the practice.”

Although Mrs. Smith was overwhelmed by what she saw, she thought that if she created a safe place for the victims they would find it.

She said she hasn’t found any woman who wouldn’t flee if she realized that she had options. Some of the victims have been able to “negotiate their debt” to secure their release.

Today, Mrs. Smith’s organization has safe houses in India, Nepal, the Dominican Republic, South Africa, the Netherlands and Fiji.

“If you’ve been used as a prostitute 20 times a day by people, if you’re surviving, you’re very sick,” Mrs. Smith said. “You have a lot of different diseases and conditions that are pretty painful. It takes awhile to get them well enough to be able to function.”

One young woman who fled to a safe house had suffered in complete darkness for a year, Mrs. Smith said. Her organization is helping one girl who was seriously injured when she was raped by eight men. Clients will pay thousands of dollars to have sex with girls as young as 5 or 6, Mrs. Smith said.

Pornography helps keep the market alive, she said. A client can buy a child for 30 minutes, but multiple people can pay to see pornographic images of the sex acts.

The organization tries to document instances of commercial exploitation of women and children, said Tony Marsh, president of Marsh Copsey and Associates Inc. in Landover.

“This is a very difficult crime to identify. There are a lot of systems out there that are designed to keep the police and authorities out,” said Mr. Marsh, who works undercover to document sex trafficking crimes. “We’re not under those kinds of limits. We’re not responsible for arresting and prosecuting perpetrators. We’re trying to make it known to the public.”

Even the United States is not free from the international trafficking market, Mrs. Smith said. Prostitution is a problem in many American cities, and in some cases involves minors.

“Why is there tolerance for buying another person? Why aren’t clients going to jail? You have to look at the whole market,” Mrs. Smith said. “If there weren’t a client, there wouldn’t be a buyer, there wouldn’t be a procurer, and there wouldn’t be a victimized woman or child. It’s much more complicated in the way that the actions of clients are accepted as normal.”

The Protect Act of 2003 provides for penalties for American citizens or residents who engage or attempt to engage in sexual activity with a child abroad, said Mohamed Y. Mattar, adjunct professor of law and executive director of the Protection Project at Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Northwest.

Under the federal legislation, signed by President Bush three years ago, convicted offenders face up to 30 years in prison.

The U.S. government has taken other measures in recent years to stop such abuses. In November, the Senate ratified a resolution of the United Nations, the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. In January, Mr. Bush signed into law the International Marriage Broker Regulation Act.

The law imposes obligations on matchmaking organizations to inform prospective brides about their fiances. If a woman comes to the United States and is subjected to sexual abuse, the law treats her as the victim of a sex crime, Mr. Mattar said.

“Whether we talk about sex trafficking, or sex tourism, or pornography or prostitution, what we’re trying to do in the anti-trafficking movement is get the governments and law-enforcement officials to recognize the trafficked person as a victim, who is entitled to basic human rights, and not a criminal who is in violation of the law,” Mr. Mattar said.

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